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NC Medicaid Reimbursement Rates for Primary Care Physicians Slashed; Is a Potential NC Lawsuit Looming?

Here is my follow-up from yesterday’s blog post, “NC Docs Face Retroactive Medicaid Rate Cut.

Nearly one-third of physicians say they will not accept new Medicaid patients, according to a new study.  Is this shocking in light of the end of the ACA enhanced payments for primary physicians, NC’s implementation of a 3% reimbursement rate cut for primary care physicians, and the additional 1% reimbursement rate cut?  No, this is not shocking. It merely makes economic sense.

Want more physicians to accept Medicaid? Increase reimbursement rates!

Here, in NC, the Medicaid reimbursement rates for primary care physicians and pediatricians have spiraled downward from a trifecta resulting in an epically, low parlay. They say things happen in threes…

(1) With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Medicaid reimbursement rate for certain primary care services increased to reimburse 100% of Medicare Cost Share for services paid in 2013 and 2014.  This enhanced payment stopped on January 1, 2015.

(2) Concurrently on January 1, 2015, Medicaid reimbursement rates for evaluation and management and vaccination services were decreased by 3% due to enactments in the 2013 NC General Assembly session.

(3) Concurrently on January 1, 2015, Medicaid reimbursement rates for evaluation and management and vaccination services were decreased by 1% due to enactments in the 2014 NC General Assembly session.

The effect of the trifecta of Medicaid reimbursement rates for certain procedure codes for primary care physicians can be seen below.

CCNC

As a result, a physician currently receiving 100% of the Medicare rates will see a 16% to 24% reduction in certain E&M and vaccine procedure codes for Medicaid services rendered after January 1, 2015.

Are physicians (and all other types of health care providers) powerless against the slashing and gnashing of Medicaid reimbursement rates due to budgetary concerns?

No!  You are NOT powerless!  Be informed!!

Section 30(A) of the Medicaid Act states that:

“A state plan for medical assistance must –

Provide such methods and procedures relating to the utilization of, and the payment for, care and services available under the plan (including but not limited to utilization review plans as provided for in section 1396b(i)(4) of this title) as may be necessary to safeguard against unnecessary utilization of such care and services and to assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area.”

Notice those three key goals:

  • Quality of care
  • Sufficient to enlist enough providers
  • So that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area

Courts across the country have held that low Medicaid reimbursement rates which are set due to budgetary factors and fail to consider federally mandated factors, such as access to care or cost of care, are in violation of federal law.  Courts have further held that Medicaid reimbursement rates cannot be set based solely on budgetary reasons.

For example, U.S. District Court Judge Adalberto Jordan held in a 2014 Florida case that:

“I conclude that while reimbursement rates are not the only factor determining whether providers participate in Medicaid, they are by far the most important factor, and that a sufficient increase in reimbursement rates will lead to a substantial increase in provider participation and a corresponding increase to access to care.”

“Given the record, I conclude that plaintiffs have shown that achieving adequate provider enrollment in Medicaid – and for those providers to meaningfully open their practices to Medicaid children – requires compensation to be set at least at the Medicare level.

Judge Jordan is not alone.  Over the past two decades, similar cases have been filed in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas, and D.C. [Notice: Not in NC].  These lawsuits demanding higher reimbursement rates have largely succeeded.

There is also a pending Supreme Court case that I blogged about here.

Increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rates is vital for Medicaid recipients and access to care.  Low reimbursement rates cause physicians to cease accepting Medicaid patients.  Therefore, these lawsuits demanding increased reimbursement rates benefit both the Medicaid recipients and the physicians providing the services.

According to the above-mentioned study, in 2011, “96 percent of physicians accepted new patients in 2011, rates varied by payment source: 31 percent of physicians were unwilling to accept any new Medicaid patients; 17 percent would not accept new Medicare patients; and 18 percent of physicians would not accept new privately insured patients.”

It also found this obvious fact:  “Higher state Medicaid-to-Medicare fee ratios were correlated with greater acceptance of new Medicaid patients.”

Ever heard the phrase: “You get what you pay for.”?

A few months ago, my husband brought home a box of wine.  Yes, a box of wine.  Surely you have noticed those boxes of wine at Harris Teeter.  I tried a sip.  It was ok.  I’m no wine connoisseur.  But I woke the next morning with a terrible headache after only consuming a couple of glasses of wine.  I’m not sure whether the cheaper boxed wine has a higher level of tannins, or what, but I do not get headaches off of 2 glasses of wine when the wine bottle is, at least, $10.  You get what you pay for.

The same is true in service industries.  Want a cheap lawyer? You get what you pay for.  Want a cheap contractor? You get what you pay for.

So why do we expect physicians to provide the same quality of care in order to receive $10 versus $60?  Because physicians took the Hippocratic Oath?  Because physicians have an ethical duty to treat patients equally?

While it is correct that physicians take the Hippocratic Oath and have an ethical duty to their clients, it’s for these exact reasons that many doctors simply refuse to accept Medicaid.  It costs the doctor the same office rental, nurse salaries, and time devoted to patients to treat a person with Blue Cross Blue Shield as it does a person on Medicaid.  However, the compensation is vastly different.

Why?  Why the different rates if the cost of care is equal?

Budgetary reasons.

Unlike private insurance, Medicaid is paid with tax dollars.  Each year, the General Assembly determines our Medicaid budget.  Reducing Medicaid reimbursement rates, by even 1%, can affect the national Medicaid budget by billions of dollars.

But, remember, rates cannot be set for merely budgetary reasons…

Is a potential lawsuit looming in NC’s not so distant future???

NC Docs Face Retroactive Medicaid Rate Cut

This is a story from NC Health News by Rose Hoban…a follow up blog to come

In the 2014 state budget passed last August, state lawmakers inserted what could be considered a poison pill for Medicaid providers: a 3 percent pay cut that for specialists could be effective retroactively to January 2014.

Primary care providers such as pediatricians, internists and family doctors will see the same pay cut, effective back to Jan. 1, 2015.

But the cut is only now being implemented.

“All of us were optimistic that the cut wouldn’t happen,” said Karen Smith, a family doctor in Raeford who runs her own practice.

Smith said she and other physicians have been writing, calling and talking to legislators, working to convince them not to implement the cut.

But she and thousands of other primary care providers received notification late last week that on March 1 they would begin seeing the 3 percent cut.

And for specialists, the reduction will go back 14 months.

“It’s quite a hit,” said Elaine Ellis, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Medical Society.

Failed shared-savings plan behind the problem

The origin of the 3 percent cut goes back to the 2013 budget for Medicaid, the program that covers health care for low-income children, some of their parents, pregnant women and low-income seniors. In 2013, the federal government paid North Carolina 65.5 percent of every dollar billed for Medicaid-eligible care, while the state covered the other 34.5 percent (The rate, which changes annually, is 65.9 percent for 2015).
In 2013, the Medicaid budget had grown to close to $4 billion in state dollars, and lawmakers at the General Assembly were looking for ways to trim costs. So they devised a “shared-savings” program, in which Medicaid providers would take a 3 percent rate cut that would be collected by the state Department of Health and Human Services. If doctors and hospitals saved money by operating more efficiently, DHHS would share those savings back with the providers, effectively reducing the amount of the 3 percent cut.

But DHHS needed federal approval to initiate the program, which would have been complicated. The agency never submitted a plan to the federal government, so neither part of the program was initiated.

That created a problem for lawmakers, who had calculated the savings from the rate cut into their state budget. When lawmakers returned to Raleigh in 2014 to adjust the state’s biennial budget, they implemented the rate cut retroactively to Jan 1, 2014 for specialists. Primary care providers, such as Karen Smith, had their rate cut put off until the beginning of 2015.

Big bucks

Officials from the Medical Society have been gathering numbers from around the state and are finding that some specialty practices could owe tens of thousands of dollars that would need to be repaid to state coffers.

The need for retroactive payment is in part a logistical problem: The computerized Medicaid management information system, known as NCTracks, has not been able to process the cuts. NCTracks has had technical issues since it was rolled out in mid-2013; at that time, glitches in the system created months of delays and tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid services for providers.

“Requiring these [specialist] medical practices to pay back 3 percent of what the state has already paid them for the last 14 months would wreak havoc with the finances of these businesses – really, any business would struggle to recover from such a financial blow,” Robert Schaaf, a Raleigh radiologist and president of the Medical Society, wrote Monday in a press release.

And primary care doctors like Smith are also fretting over paying back 3 percent of what she earned from Medicaid for the past two months.

“Practices such as my own are functioning on an operating budget that’s month by month,” said Smith, who said that a great many of her patients are Medicaid recipients.

“We simply do not have that type of operating reserve to allow for that,” she said.

The cuts will be especially tough for rural providers, who have high numbers of Medicaid patients, said Greg Griggs from the N.C. Academy of Family Practitioners (The Academy of Family Practitioners is a North Carolina Health News sponsor).

“It’s one thing to make the cuts going forward, but to take money back, especially for that period of time, is pretty significant for people who’ve been willing to take care of our most needy citizens,” Griggs said.

“It’s pretty bad,” he said, “and its not like Medicaid pays extraordinarily well to begin with.”

Piling on

In addition to the state cut is a federal cut of 1 percent to Medicaid reimbursements for primary care providers that went into effect on Jan. 1.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, primary care providers like Smith got a bump in reimbursement last year, but that ran out with the new year. Smith said that legislators in other states found ways to keep paying that enhanced rate for primary care doctors.

“We were hoping our legislators would do the same,” she said.

Instead, Smith finds herself talking to her staff about possible reductions, and she’s hearing from providers in her area that they’re throwing in the towel.

“I already have colleagues who’ve left practice of medicine in this area,” she said. “My personal physician is no longer in this area. Another colleague who was a resident three years in front of me told me he cannot deal with the economics of practicing like this anymore.”

Smith acknowledged that North Carolina’s Medicaid program has a slightly higher reimbursement to physicians than surrounding states. But she said many of her patients are quite ill.

“We are in the stroke belt,” she said, referring to the high rate of strokes in eastern North Carolina. “When we look at how sick our patients are compared to other states, is it equivalent? Are we measuring apples to apples?